Five Essential Productivity Tools for Freelancers
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
My last job involved supporting people undertaking complex projects. These folks undoubtedly had the requisite expertise and desire to complete these projects, but what often stood in their way was time management and digital workflows. My current work as a web designer and educational consultant now has its own set of privileges and responsibilities: I get to structure my day as I want, but I have to be self-directed in order to complete projects for multiple clients. After 20 years in academia and the professional world, I depend on efficient organizational processes not only to deliver more value to my clients, but also to protect my mental health and creativity.
Here are the tools I find indispensable in my current roles as a web designer and OER consultant.
1. Time clock software
Ever wonder where the day went? It's actually easier to find out than guesstimate! If you ever do contract-based work and bill hourly, or need to keep track of employees' hours for a small business, try On The Clock! It's what we use here at TAO Websites, and we love it. It allows us to track how many hours we're working and accurately invoice clients. It's super simple, and even free for companies with up to three people.
2. Central to-do list (for me, an analog notebook)
I recently read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen and found the categories of his weekly review list helpful (though I refer to the list more frequently than that). I write a heading for each of my main active projects. This includes both personal and professional responsibilities. My projects usually include each of my active jobs and categories like Home/Garden, Family/Friends, Volunteering, etc. Under these project categories I'll have the next actions listed out. For example, under Home/Garden, I might have, Call garden center to see if a fig tree is available. This is more helpful to my future self than simply writing fig tree. My future self is more likely to act on something that seems easier.
In the past I've used digital tools like Google Tasks, but I have made a health decision to minimize digital engagement in my free time and prioritize exercising, reading, gardening, and spending face-to-face time with friends and family. The problem is, my free time is when I have some of my best and most creative ideas! I'm no spring chicken, so I know my great idea won't be there if I don't capture it right away. If I stop to use my phone to document the idea, it's too easy to get sucked into media I'm trying to limit: endlessly browsing news, social media, and the web. My solution? A print notebook! I find it restorative and less stressful to use my notebook throughout the day. Then, when I'm sitting down at my computer, I can address the computer-based action items on my list.
Sometimes I have creative or exciting ideas that aren't immediately actionable. David Allen also gave me the idea of a Someday/Maybe section in my to-do notebook. If I'm at capacity one day, I can focus only on next actions in my Projects list. If I find some time to develop a new creative project the following week, I can review my Someday/Maybe list for ideas.
3. Password manager
Use one consistently, across all your devices. Nothing can waste time like resetting passwords.
4. Digital calendar connected to my smartphone
I use Google calendar because it syncs with my phone and a lot of my collaborators use it. Microsoft or Zoho calendars work fine, too. You can use different calendars and color code them. My partner and I have a shared calendar for activities and reminders involving both of us. I use my calendar for several things:
Meetings with other people (preferably with a linked agenda)
Reminders to follow up on a project that doesn't need immediate attention
Project due dates, trips, medical appointments, special occasions, and other important things I need to prepare for and plan around
Blocks of time to ensure I spend time on activities I need or want to do (call mom, exercise, practice the piano, write a blog post)
I consciously chose not to have email notifications on my phone, but I do have calendar reminders turned on so I don't miss any meetings.
5. A well-managed inbox
It's fairly common for your calendar software to also be your email program. I've used Google, Microsoft, and Zoho, and they all work pretty much the same. If you email a lot, you'll probably run out of free storage and need to pay for more. Otherwise, many basic, personal email accounts are free.
While I don't adhere to a strict inbox zero policy, I do try to limit my emails to ones I need to follow up on. I feel very overwhelmed when there are hundreds of unaddressed emails in my work inbox. So, I take time each day to do one of the following with most of my emails:
Delete it if I won't ever need it again
Put it in my Saved folder if it's non-actionable information I might need to reference later. I can then find emails I need to reference later with the search functionality on most email programs. I generally remember who sent an email, roughly when, and what some of the words were.
Save it or add a browser bookmark if it's a digital resource (then delete)
Add a calendar reminder if its an event or a resource (then put in Saved folder)
Forward or delegate, when appropriate
Respond right away if I I need to and can do so quickly (then put in Saved folder)
Add to my to-do list to follow up on when I have time, or add a calendar reminder if it's time sensitive
This process leaves very few emails in my inbox. I'm able to work without a nagging anxiety that I'm leaving something important unaddressed.
5. Cloud storage
Your email/calendar tool will very likely also come with a basic suite of office tools (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software) and a cloud storage system. Again, I don't think the platform choice is as important as how you use it. After having a "hybrid" file system for years (some stuff in a print file folder, some stuff on my computer storage, and some stuff on various cloud storage tools), I realized a central structure was more efficient and trouble-free. Each of my projects has a folder. I use the commonly-available sync feature so saving files on my computer also saves them to the cloud. I have far less anxiety about losing important work.
I do as much paperwork digitally as possible, and keep one small folder for things that need to be kept in paper like wills, birth certificates, vaccine records, etc. These are ready to grab if we ever need to evacuate, and we also have digital copies and print copies in our go bags (yes, we believe in being prepared here at TAO!).
You can see a few themes in my recommendations: I'm trying to help my distractable, 21st century brain be focused and creative rather than worrying about mundane tasks that technology can do for me. Since my job is primarily online, I'm also using some analog technologies to give my eyes and mind a break from the screen. There are many more organizational and productivity tools that can also be helpful, depending on your specific challenge or type of work:
Basecamp, Trello, or another shared project management tool can be helpful for project management of highly collaborative work.
Many people swear by bullet journaling.
Others have found pomodoro timers or apps that restrict access to the internet for certain hours to help them with time management.
My business partner recommends DeskPins and a customized desktop.
Personally, I find standalone chat tools like Slack to be an invasive and unnecessary substitute for email. I check email approximately once an hour throughout the day, and there are few emergencies more time-sensitive than that in my work. But that's just me: I gravitate towards calm technologies.
While I have adopted some of David Allen's excellent suggestions, my system is simpler and optimized through trial and error. Everyone's needs are different. How do you stay calm, focused, and in your productivity zone?